Tuesday, September 09, 2008

And Then it Rained

A crinkly pink ribbon of lightning dangled briefly from the gray wall of cloud shutting off the western sky. Overhead and to the east had been overcast already, but this was the first wave of the cold front we'd been told to expect.

I hurried home to put a trash barrel under the gutter downspout. We'd never completed our rain-catching system, so the roof gutter had started using the basement as a default sump.

Within minutes the barrel was full. The continuing flow from the roof beat the water in the barrel to a froth. I used a bilge pump to transfer half of it to another trash barrel so I could dump both away from the house. Even our small roof exceeds thirty gallons of runoff in a few minutes with a partial gutter on only one side. We could collect hundreds of gallons for later use if we had the facilities.

Gutters don't do well in a snowy, icy winter. That's why we only put a partial one over the garden beds to keep summer roof runoff from beating the plants down. Our rain chain is fine for mild to moderate rains, but the tropical-style downpours that have become the new summer norm turn into a solid column of water pounding into the gravel beside the foundation. Time to get busy on another project.

New England winters are a crap shoot. We could get snow and bitter temperatures or we could get a bleak, endless rainy season. It could even shift gears from week to week. That makes a single system hard to design. It's easy to eliminate snow from the rain barrel by putting a pitched roof on top of it, but what about frozen down spouts? A warm wet spell in winter could last only hours before giving way to another hard freeze. Last winter's snow load nearly took down the little gutter we have.

This morning I did a site walk on a property where someone has built a new home, expertly terraced into the slope. Tidy blue barrels with bug screening sit at the bottom of each down spout. Overflow pipes come off the barrels and are no doubt flowing over at this moment. I did not get to look closely to see where the overflow goes. Our walk directed us elsewhere.

Once again I reflected on the up-front cost of setting up green systems, which can keep low income people from being able to institute them quickly enough to do much good. Back when I was only half employed I had time to put things together out of scrounged materials. That free time came at a price.

Reading Mother Earth News I've renamed it Begged Question Bi-Monthly, because so many of the articles can't tell the reader how to afford many of these off-grid energy systems and clever pieces of homesteading technology. For that matter, does anyone even know if massive numbers of people could turn their suburban-size lots into viable homesteads? It's like the trips in Outsider-Than -Thou Magazine, or the whoop-de-doo technology in Obsessive-Compulsive Cycling. What about real people trying to get the most from their ordinary lives?

In a Disney comic book about Scrooge McDuck, the old miser's fortune gets scattered over the landscape by some sort of catastrophe, making everyone an instant millionaire. They all decide to take this opportunity to do some traveling. But everywhere they go,everyone's an instant millionaire and doesn't have to work anymore, so no one can get services or lodging.

I understand the value of vicarious escape through exciting tales of adventures you'll never have. But vicarious homesteading and unfulfilled dreams of adopting unworkable systems doesn't help the undeniable problems we face in accommodating our population and preserving some level of comfortable civilization. A handful of successful homesteaders does no more to improve the overall human condition than a handful of super wealthy does to bring up everyone's average income.

I'm still thinking about this.

Most of what I read in Begged Question Bi-Monthly demands not only a fairly high degree of intelligence, but some training and considerable dedication. If those were widespread qualities, they'd already be much more in evidence.

The green solution needs to be made automatic. Otherwise you'll have a large number of disinterested people continuing to live in our time-honored ways, perpetuating the problems that threaten us now. The flawed system is what we evolved through our natural impulses. The solution has to be as easy as flipping a switch, just as the problem is now. It has to be instituted as drastically as the Tennessee Valley Authority and all the massive infrastructure projects of the early 20th Century. Most people can't even remember to maintain a bicycle. They get someone else to change the oil in their car, if they get it done at all. For whatever reason, they're thinking about other things. So you've either got to do a really good job teaching them to think differently or provide technology that doesn't require them to pay any more attention to it than what they have now.

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